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Hundreds more Palestinians killed as Israel pursues Hamas in south Gaza (Update)

a solemn hanukkah: israelis take stock two months into war
People release balloons for Israeli hostages who are being held in the Gaza Strip as the country observes the start of Hanukkah, in Tel Aviv

Israel battled Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip’s biggest cities on Thursday, leaving hundreds more Palestinians dead as almost 2 million displaced Gazans struggled to find safe refuge amid critical shortages of food and shelter.

Residents reported fierce battles going on east of Khan Younis, southern Gaza’s largest city and Palestinian health officials said three Gazans were killed in an Israeli air strike on a house in Deir Al-Balah in central Gaza.

Israel said its forces killed a number of gunmen in Khan Younis, including two who emerged firing from a tunnel.

Israeli TV showed footage, which Reuters could not independently verify, of what it said were captured Hamas fighters, stripped to their underwear with heads bowed sitting in a Gaza City street.

Some Palestinians recognized relatives and denied they had any links to Hamas or any other group. Hani Almadhoun, a Palestinian American based in Virginia saw relatives in the picture and told Reuters they were “innocent civilians with no links to Hamas or any other faction.”

“They took them from a house, that belongs to the family, in the area of the market. They detained my brother Mahmoud, 32, his son Omar, 13, my other nephew Aboud, 27, and my father 72, and several of our in-laws.”

Israeli military spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, said soldiers were fighting against militants in Hamas “centers of gravity.”

“During this fighting, those who stay in the area, come out of tunnels and some out of houses, we investigate and check who is linked to Hamas and who is not, we detain and interrogate all of them,” Hagari said. He did not speak directly about the images but said that hundreds of suspected militants have been interrogated so far and that many have surrendered in the past 24 hours.

Gazans have crammed into Rafah on the southern border with Egypt, heeding Israeli messages saying that they would be safe in the city after successive warnings to head south.

But more than 20 people were killed in apartments there late on Wednesday, said Eyad al-Hobi, a relative of some of those killed.

“All apartments in the building suffered serious damage,” he said as people brought out two apparently lifeless children.

Another relative, Bassam al-Hobi, said the building had been hit by three rockets and he gestured to bodies wrapped in white cloth, some small, on the ground and surrounded by mourners.

In Washington, a senior State Department official said U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Israel’s strategic affairs minister on Thursday, and told him Israel needs to do more to protect civilians in its offensive in southern Gaza.

NEW PHASE

Israeli troops reached the heart of Khan Younis on Wednesday in a new phase of the war, now entering its third month. Health officials said three people were killed there on Thursday.

Ambulances and relatives rushed the wounded into the city’s Nasser hospital, but even the floor space inside was full. Two badly wounded children lay on a trolley and a bloodstained young boy lay screaming among the patients on the floor.

“The injuries are very severe,” said doctor Mohamed Matar. “The situation is catastrophic in all senses of the word…We can’t treat the injured in this state.”

Those who escape violence face an increasingly desperate struggle to survive.

Ibrahim Mahram, who fled to Al Mawasi, said five families were sharing a tent in the former Bedouin village, which refugee organisations say lacks shelter, food and other necessities.

“We suffered from the war of cannons and escaped it to arrive at the war of starvation,” he told Reuters.

The U.N. Palestinian Refugee Agency (UNRWA) said 1.9 million people – 85 percent of Gaza’s population – had been displaced and its shelters were four times over capacity.

U.N. refugee chief Filippo Grandi said pressure was growing in the south of the enclave near Egypt.

“People are piling up in the little sliver of land between Khan Younis and the Rafah border,” he told Reuters.

The Gaza health ministry said 17,177 Palestinians had been killed and 46,000 wounded since Oct 7, when Israel began bombing Gaza in response to an assault by Hamas militants who control the enclave. In the past 24 hours alone, 350 people had been killed, ministry spokesman Ashraf Al-Qidra said.

Israel says it must wipe out Hamas and is doing everything possible to get civilians out of harm’s way.

BOMBING AND GUNBATTLES

Israel said it had raided a Hamas compound in Jabalia, killing several gunmen and found tunnels, a training area and weapons.

The armed wing of Hamas said fighters had destroyed or damaged 79 army vehicles in Gaza City in the past three days but did not produce evidence.

The surprise Hamas incursion on Oct 7. killed 1,200 people, with 240 people taken hostage, according to Israel’s tally.

The Israeli military says 88 soldiers have been killed in ground incursions into Gaza that began on Oct. 20.

The U.N. has been unable to distribute aid in any part of Gaza except for the area around Rafah for the past four days, it said in its daily humanitarian report on Thursday.

A senior Hamas official told Reuters mediators were still exploring opportunities for a truce and reiterated its demand that Israel cease its attacks but the White House said Israel and Hamas were not close to a deal on a humanitarian pause.

U.N. aid chief Martin Griffiths said on Thursday there were promising signs that the Kerem Shalom crossing in Israel could soon be opened to allow more humanitarian aid into Gaza.

A guided-missile attack from Lebanon killed a 60-year-old farmer in northern Israel on Thursday, Hagari said, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that Beirut would be turned “into Gaza” if Hezbollah, a Hamas ally, started an all-out war.

The White House said on Thursday that Israel and Hamas were not close to another deal on a new humanitarian pause and release of further Israeli hostages.

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